Monday 28 January 2013

Building Bridges, Building Culture

By Edmund Lo, S.J.

About a month ago, the scientific world bid farewell to a giant, Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini. Her name immediately rang several bells when I read this on the news, for she is quite a big name in the field of neuroscience. Dr. Levi-Montalcini, along with her then-colleague, Dr. Stanley Cohen, discovered a small protein which they later named the Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). This little protein is crucial in the development of the nervous system: its release manages to “attract” the receiving end of a neural cell. In a nutshell, its regulation would make sure that neural cells are properly wired with each other. NGF and other proteins of similar functions are also found to play an important role in the formation of cancerous tumours and also in neurodegenerative disorders. Drs. Levi-Montalcini and Cohen were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1986 for this great contribution.

In addition to being the first Nobel laureate who has lived to become a centenarian (she was 103 when she died), Dr. Levi-Montalcini was also nominated to be a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (PAS) in the 1970s, and a quick search within the website shows that she was quite active in the different conferences hosted by the PAS. This is all the more interesting, given that Dr. Levi-Montalcini was an atheist. In fact, several prominent atheist websites also published articles that bemoaned her passing. One may rightly ask: why would Dr. Levi-Montalcini agreed to join the PAS? Or, why did the PAS invite her?

This relationship between Dr. Levi-Montalcini and the PAS showed a great amount of openness on both sides. Atheist scientists are not uncommon these days, but ones who are willing to work with a faith group such as the Catholic Church are a rare breed. This requires that the scientist realizes that people of faith are not uninterested in science. It would be an act of ignorance if the door was immediately slammed shut on account of one's beliefs; the same goes for the Church. In addition, the goal of the PAS is not to proselytize unbelieving scientists, nor is it to impose ideologies onto the scientific world. It is to first promote scientific progress; it is also to provide authoritative scientific opinions, so that the Church be informed of, and be equipped to tackle the moral questions raised by the latest discoveries. More importantly, it is to invite science to dialogue with other disciplines; in other words, it is to see the world in more than just measurable entities. What does science bring to the “big picture”? Pope Benedict XVI succinctly commented on this issue in his address to the members of the PAS in November of 2012:

“I am convinced of the urgent need for continued dialogue and cooperation between the worlds of science and of faith in the building of a culture of respect for man, for human dignity and freedom, for the future of our human family and for the long-term sustainable development of our planet. Without this necessary interplay, the great questions of humanity leave the domain of reason and truth, and are abandoned to the irrational, to myth, or to indifference, with great damage to humanity itself, to world peace and to our ultimate destiny.”
This means that regardless of one's religious beliefs, there exists a common foundation as long as this common concern can be agreed upon. In order to build bridges, a solid foundation is necessary. I would imagine that Dr. Levi-Montalcini understood this as well, leading to her active involvement in the endeavours of PAS. To open ourselves to such an opportunity requires much humility, and at times there are unseen obstacles that prevent us from being so. This calls for a prayerful reflection: perhaps I may be theoretically open to such a dialogue and common “building project”, but how open am I to this when the rubber hits the road? Do I, for whatever reason, flip a switch and turn myself off in the face of non-believers or atheists? Is there a way for me to learn to dialogue with them that goes beyond a bunch of smiley “um-hmm”s and actually leads to progress towards this common goal?

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